On April 15, 2013, four south suburban runners, friends and training partners, started running toward Boylston Street, the finish line of the Boston Marathon. They stopped just half a mile short of their goal, after two bombings near the finish line killed three people and injured more than 260. A year and 6 days later, they'll finally get their chance to finish.
While some runners come to Boston focused on setting a new personal record, Andrea Lampasona, Jackie Hodges, Jerry Rauman and Deb Walter, who met through the Yankee Runners training group a few years ago, just wanted to make the most of the Boston experience.
Three had run Boston before, but they were determined to run together in 2013, said Rauman, CFO of Access Living who lives in Tinley Park. All but Walter, a physical therapist from Orland Park, hit their qualifying times by less than 60 seconds. Lampasona, a teacher from Oak Forest, earned a Boston slot for the first time on her fourth serious attempt.
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"We worked so hard to get there, so it was our chance to celebrate," said Hodges, of Oak Forest, assistant director of the Housing Authority of Cook County.
And celebrate they did, stopping to take photos to document their journey, one with a runner in a Santa suit, another as they took cups of beer from exuberant student spectators offering an alternative to the water stations.
At mile 22, a friend gave them lime green "Thank you Boston" T-shirts that garnered extra-loud cheers in the final miles, and they said a spectator called out that they were having "way too much fun" for runners mid-marathon.
"That's the hardest part," Walter said. "It was such a good day, until it wasn't."
They heard the boom after 25.6 miles, like a transformer exploding, Rauman said, or a semi falling over, Hodges and Walter thought.
Then they heard the same sound, again. To Lampasona, it sounded like a cannon. Struggling and eager to get to the finish line, she had picked up the pace and was about a block ahead of the others when she saw rising smoke. Without hesitation, she turned and sprinted away from her goal, back to her friends.
"The silence that followed — you just knew something was really wrong," she said.
Police wouldn't let them leave the area and weren't sharing much information, they said. For awhile, they stood on the course, unsure what to do next.
Walter left her watch running, since it seemed inconceivable the race wouldn't go on.
"Who stops the Boston Marathon?" Hodges remembered asking herself, incredulous.
It started to sink in when they decided to walk away, Lampasona said. For Walter, it wasn't until they reached their hotel near the course, with police filling the lobby and ambulances lining the streets and saw scenes from the finish line on the news.
At the time, no one knew if more attacks might be on the way. They wondered what would have happened if they hadn't stopped for the T-shirts and photos.
"We felt safe because we were all together, and we didn't all fall apart at the same time," Walter said. "But we couldn't get out of town fast enough."
Even after they did, it was hard to shake what happened that day. Rauman and Hodges found themselves jumping at any loud noise. Looking through the dozens of photos of themselves having "crazy fun" in the minutes and hours before the bombing was surreal, Hodges said.
"It was hard to reconcile, and to know how to feel about it," Rauman said.
It helped, they said, that they'd shared the experience and had an automatic group to turn to.
All four said they never intended to return to the Boston marathon before the bombing, and wouldn't have gone back alone.
But when they got the email saying runners who had been turned around before the finish would be eligible to race in 2014, they didn't hesitate. By noon that same day, they'd booked their flights and hotels, Walter said.
This year's race will be different. "It's not about the runners, it's about Boston," Rauman said.
They still won't be trying to set records, but the race won't have last year's party atmosphere, either.
A fifth runner from their training group will join them after successfully petitioning the Boston Athletic Association for a spot with a letter describing his desire to run to support Boston and his four returning friends. They're also bringing family this time, a 17-person cheering section. None have questioned their decision to return, they said.
With the marathon about two weeks away, they're training less to stay fresh for the race. "The extra energy always makes you antsy, but there's a little extra this time," Walter said. She said she tries not to think about the possibility of another attack and tells herself the marathon, with extra security, is the safest place to be.
Rauman said he's glad race officials seem to have decided to keep the finish area open to spectators. "The atmosphere is so important," he said. "When Chicago and New York limited access, it felt like giving in."
All four said they're looking forward to turning onto Boylston Street, crossing the finish line hand in hand and watching Lampasona finally get her finisher's medal.
"We have run a lot of miles to get that last half mile," Walter said.